Dr. Anthony, thank you. Ladies and gentlemen, thank you very much. I am very glad to be participating in this event. The National Council on US-Arab Relations performs an important service, working to bring together nations and people.
Through events such as this, fellowships, publications, internships and more, the Council serves the critical role of improving American knowledge of the Arab world. Increasing and improving people-to-people exchanges and educational programs is exactly the type of approach Saudi Arabia is currently engaged on its own.
Today, I was asked to present a vision of the future of Saudi-US relations. If the request were asked of me five years ago – or even three years ago – I would have had a very different answer. The events of 9/11 placed a heavy burden on our countries’ relationship. But one we’ve shouldered admirably.
Today, as a result of serious work on both sides, there are a lot of positive things to say. After King Abdullah met with President Bush, last year, on an official level, relations between our two countries are stronger than they have ever been. What is clear is that the terrorists miscalculated in their attempts to drive our nations apart. They only stirred a resolve that has resulted in greater cooperation and coordination between us. And this extends far beyond the war on terror.
Indeed, our enduring relations are bound by much more than oil. We have a number of important pillars that support our relationship. Without preference for their order, there are six of them: the war on terrorism, oil, trade, Middle East stability, military cooperation and the longstanding interpersonal relationships shared between the people of our nations – which have, in fact, endured longer than any official relationship. These pillars form our foundation. They define our interaction and provide us with concrete reasons why our nations continue to work together successfully.
But where do we go from here? How do we continue to improve our relationship? There are still many issues left unresolved. There are still many sticking points.
To address the challenges before us, and the challenges ahead, the first thing we have done is to put in place stronger links between our two governments and a framework to better manage the many complex issues we have on our common agenda.
The best example of how this is taking shape is the Saudi-US Strategic Dialogue. This new mechanism is intended to institutionalize relations between our countries. It is meant to overcome inevitable differences and to align our resources and capabilities to a greater extent.
The Strategic Dialogue is progressing through regular meetings between the Saudi Foreign Minister and the US Secretary of State – as well as among working groups from both governments – to work constructively and comprehensively on a continuous basis on a range of issues of importance to both countries.
The first meeting occurred during then Crown Prince, now King Abdullah’s visit with President Bush last year in Crawford, Texas. Since then, Foreign Minister Saud Al-Faisal and Secretary of State Rice have met twice for the Strategic Dialogue.
The gatherings are open to candid discussion in a collegial atmosphere. There are also meetings of six working groups, which include Energy; Economic & Financial Affairs; Consular Affairs; Partnership, Education, Exchange & Human Resources – that is all one committee – Military Affairs; and Counterterrorism.
Allow me to explain briefly how the Strategic Dialogue has been working.
In the beginning of May, President Bush invited me to a “meet and greet” at the White House. During a thorough review of issues, I made the point to Mr. Bush that solving the Palestinian problem will allow us to go on to solve the other problems in the area.
Three weeks later, the meeting of the Strategic Dialogue took place. Prince Saud delivered to the President a letter from King Abdullah, offering to work with the President in solving the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. The president then instructed Secretary Rice to follow up with Prince Saud on the details. Alas, the capture of the two Israeli soldiers led to the Israeli invasion and destruction of Lebanon.
King Abdullah then sent Prince Saud back in July to stress to Mr. Bush the need for an immediate cease-fire and again to press for a solution to the Israeli-Palestinian problem. Prince Bandar bin Sultan and Adel Al-Jubeir accompanied Prince Saud. In August, they came back to Washington to follow up on these issues.
The present activity we see in the Middle East is a direct result of these joint efforts, and the next meeting of the Strategic Dialogue will take place in Riyadh in December. This framework is an important mechanism that we hope will endure. It has opened unparalleled levels of communication, and is turning out to be a key way our nations are overcoming obstacles to solve real problems.
But we are also taking other steps to improve our relationship – beyond the very highest levels. Another initiative involves improving relations by increasing people-to-people interaction. The Kingdom is encouraging more delegations of officials and business leaders and citizens to come to the United States to share their views and to learn in kind.
We have also expanded a scholarship program to send our students to college abroad. Many of our students will be coming to the United States. More than 10,000 are already studying here.
They will not only be receiving a world-class education; they will be forming the next generation of friendships and bonds between Saudis and Americans. They will be the true ambassadors.
I would say one priority we currently have is to develop better relations between Saudi Arabia and the US Congress. My Embassy colleagues and I have been meeting with members of Congress continuously for the past year. We have been working to answer them their concerns and questions about the Kingdom and to express to them our concerns and our questions about how we view our relationship with the United States.
There are a lot of issues on this level, as your Representatives in both houses of Congress are some of our toughest critics. But as the saying goes: “It takes two to tango.” And here is where more action needs to be taken on your end.
For a country of such critical importance to Middle East and global affairs, we encourage more American representatives to come to the Kingdom. We want them to see our country. We want them to meet our businessmen. We want them to hear from our citizens – our men, our women and our children. I am confident that if they come to the Kingdom, their outlook will change for the positive.
In a related way, this brings me to my last observation on how we can improve our relationship in the future. I think the type of discourse that exists between the United States and Saudi Arabia needs to change.
We don’t mind being criticized. There is a well-known saying in Arabic: “Your true friend is one who tells you the truth, not the one who simply agrees with you.” But it is the way in which Americans criticize us – whether it is politicians or public figures or thought leaders – that causes us concern. We often hear political rhetoric and bombast and not constructive commentary.
Americans want to see and hear about reform and change in Saudi society and political culture. That is on the agenda, ladies and gentlemen. But we’re not going to change just because you tell us to. We are changing and reforming our society because it is the right thing to do for our people and our country. And we will do so in our own way, in accordance with our traditions and culture.
Making dictums leads nowhere. Constructive comments, on the other hand, are more helpful. Why not productively engage us instead of engaging in rhetoric that seems designed to drive us apart?
And quite frankly, right now, we find the analysis of Saudi Arabia lacking. It does not have a clear and real understanding of what is going on in the Kingdom and appears to be emotionally driven. It needs to be less revealing of political agenda and more of good sense and plain dealing. That would be helpful to both sides.
It is important to remember that your opinions, your thoughts and your analyses are not just considered by Americans; they’re considered by Saudis, too. And if you want to improve the state of our relations, it would behoove us to improve every level of our communications.
Our interests are too intertwined. If you look at the problems we are facing today – the war on terrorism, Iraq, Iran, Afghanistan, Palestine, Israel, Lebanon, energy security, the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction – none of these problems can be faced alone. We must work together to find solutions to these challenges.
Recently, due to the increasingly critical level of importance the Middle East situation is taking on, we’ve tried to be clearer and clearer about what needs to be done.
It is no secret that US standing in the Middle East is at an all time low. It is not a matter of military strength or a shift in rhetoric, but rather, a matter of basic understanding of the needs of the people who are affected by US political decisions. If the US is going to help itself – its policy needs to change in the Middle East.
Ladies and Gentlemen: This may sound very direct. It is meant to be. We should be direct with one another – especially when it comes to matters of such great importance. We are direct because we can be.
Saudi Arabia and the United States share a long and special relationship, one that is some 70 years old. We have always been forthright with one another. We have been open and honest. And so we will continue to be.
Our relationship today has matured. It was tested by the tragic events of 9/11 and emerged stronger than before. Officials in both countries have recognized the need to put in place institutional frameworks to further solidify our relationship. This effort, I’m pleased to report, is proceeding very well. And I am confident that the future of our relationship will be, God willing, a bright one. But first we need to act.
Ashkurukum shukran jazeelan – thank you all very much – and barak Allah feekum – and God bless you all.